Review: The Conquering Tide, War in the Pacific Islands 1942-1944

The Conquering Tide is an “absorbingly interesting” examination of the fight for control of the Pacific in World War 2.

Readers may wonder if we need another book on the Pacific War (actually a trilogy of which the first volume, Pacific Crucible 1941–2, appeared in 2012). No matter, this is an absorbingly interesting book. The fruit of 10 years’ research, Toll casts his net very wide, telling us more about life on the home front of both sides than is usually found in naval history. The epilogue about the Japanese home front makes sombre reading. People think of the German people as being ‘under the jackboot’ and menaced by the Gestapo but the reign of terror in Japan was on a hugely different scale. Moreover, it was accompanied by a gradual disintegration of society as gulfs opened between the classes, and between the farmers and the urban workers. However, all had one thing in common: all were betrayed by their leaders – including the emperor. Those who, like myself, believed Hirohito was a remote, largely symbolic figure, politically and militarily irrelevant (like the Kaiser after 1914 only more so) will be disabused by Toll’s temperate but merciless analysis. For example, it was the emperor who demanded that Guadalcanal should be recaptured at all cost. That cost was appalling. Most of the 30,000 Japanese who were sent there became human wreckage with more dying of starvation than were killed by the Americans. Significantly those who got rid of Premier Tojo in 1944 shared the emperor’s belief that surrender in war might save the monarchy but a left–wing revolution in peace would certainly destroy it. Casting a wide net involves trying to cover a host of topics. Professional historians must admire Toll’s ability to organise the structure of his book and amateur historians will relish his success in infusing his narrative with what Toll calls “the immediacy, intimacy and tension that are the lifeblood of a story”. I was baffled at first by his choosing to recount the story of the first three sorties by the submarine Wahoo. The contribution of the long–distance American submarines (each longer than a football field) was huge. They sank 1,100 merchant ships during the war and 201 warships. Two percent of naval personnel sank above fifty percent of all enemy ships and sixty percent of all tonnage! A major topic indeed, but why concentrate on one ‘boat’? Ian Toll skilfully uses the gripping story of one crew’s mixed experiences to tell the story of them all, exploring such topics as the inadequacies of some skippers due to pre–war training that emphasised extreme caution; the problem of the navy’s defective torpedoes; the unusual camaraderie between officers and men; and the way submarines strangled the Japanese economy. Similarly by mining the experiences of individual flyers, sailors and marines Toll makes carrier operations and the assaults on heavily defended islands so vivid you feel you are there. Equally you come to know the admirals and generals, especially Nimitz and Macarthur, and that remote irascible powerhouse, Admiral King. Finally, Toll has an eye for the illuminating detail. Everybody knows America’s industrial capacity was far beyond Japan’s but who else has told us Japan’s magnificent Zero fighters had to be towed from factory to distant railhead by oxen? Author: Ian W Toll Publisher: Norton